From four years of age it was always ballet...

Founder of Cork Dance Company Aruba Coughlan has retired. She talks to COLETTE SHERIDAN about her fulfilling career
From four years of age it was always ballet...
Aruba Coghlan recieving flowers pictured with her School of Dance Students, Cork Dance Company who took part in the production of Pavlova at the Firkin Crane Centre. Pic: Gavin Browne

CORK’S eminent dance teacher, Aruba Coughlan, recently retired as director and founder of the Cork Dance Company, safe in the knowledge that her school is in good hands.

Lithuanian ballerina and ballet teacher, Sviesa Joha, has stepped in to teach the 30 or so pupils from Aruba’s school at the Firkin Crane.

Aruba has a long career behind her, having founded her school 52 years ago.

She has dedicated her life to dance, not just in Cork, but also nationally and internationally as an examiner and member of the ITDA (International Dance Teachers’ Association).

She is also a life member of the Royal Academy of Dance and has membership with other dance organisations.

It’s a time of transition for Aruba, who reluctantly retired as it made financial sense. She also lost her beloved husband, historian and UCC professor, Sean Petit, in late 2016.

Aruba’s interest in dance was sparked at just four years of age when her grandmother brought her to her first ballet class at the Imperial Hotel under Marjorie Lyndon.

“She was a wonderful teacher who gave a lovely class. I loved every bit of it and I loved the look of her because she was a traditional teacher with a proper teaching skirt, a smart top and a flower in her hair.”

To this day, Aruba always wears a flower or corsage in her dark hair.

Originally from Douglas, she was destined for ballet.

“I didn’t have anything else in mind. I could have gone into the bank like my father but I didn’t fancy it.

“I think, if I were to be truthful, it seemed dance was the only thing I had any potential for and I had a passion for it.”

Aruba says she had the physique for her chosen career. In her day, ballerinas were no taller than five feet, five and a half inches.

“If you went over that, it was considered really tall. Now, dancers are five feet, ten inches. They’re all better fed.”

In her day, it wasn’t possible to train in ballet teaching in Ireland. Aruba had to go to London to do exams.

“Now, we did have Joan Denise Moriarty but she wasn’t interested in preparing anyone for teaching exams. Her main interest was the stage which she did extremely well. She brought in foreign dancers too, who were excellent.

“It was I who brought the first Royal Academy of Professional Dance exams to Cork. That was in 1962. Joan Denise Moriarty was looking after the stage side of ballet and I thought I could try and look after the academic side of it.

“The world was advancing. Everything was becoming much more exam conscious and I could see it was necessary.

“When I started the exams, it was my ambition to set them up here so that the opportunity would be there. I did that. I would teach the classes with the ultimate aim of the students learning a set syllabus so they could get a certificate. It helped them if they wanted to go to college.”

Aruba, who never had to watch what she ate, says that smoking and drinking were out of the question for serious dancers.

“That was particularly the case for ballet. It’s classified as a sport and is the most strenuous sport there is.”

Growing up, Aruba also learned Irish dancing and tap.

“Now, tap has gone into modern dance. I’m actually qualified in many branches of dance. I even have ballroom dancing.”

Aruba was appointed as the first examiner in dance in Ireland 25 years ago and has travelled extensively in Europe, examining students.

Looking back, she has the satisfaction of knowing that she pursued something that interested her.

“I just did it. It was very difficult for me. I had to find money to train in London and keep up the training. I never drew any social welfare because my mother taught us that you only did that if you really had to. I had part-time jobs.

“Once I got off the ground, I spent 15 years teaching in Millstreet and years in Fermoy in the Loreto Convent and also Youghal. I seemed to pick up work. It wasn’t very lucrative. I knew I’d never be rich. My father was dead at this stage. My mother helped me out any way she could.”

Aruba Coughlan with her husband Sean Pettit, who is deceased.
Aruba Coughlan with her husband Sean Pettit, who is deceased.

Aruba met her husband at the Cork Film Festival 61 years ago.

“He was very dedicated to my dance and I hope I was as dedicated to his history. He was one of the most supportive husbands any woman ever had. I was supportive of him as well. We each had things to do and we got on with it.

“Sean is two years dead now. I should maybe have retired then. It broke my heart to retire. But losing my husband was the worst thing. We were everything to each other. We had no children.

“I’m glad he died the way he did because if he had been in hospital, he’d have hated it. He kissed me goodbye at 12.05pm on a Wednesday and was dead at five minutes to one. He had a heart attack and died on the side of the street.

“It was a tremendous shock. It took me about 16 months to get over the shock. When I go home tonight (in St Luke’s) and close the door, there’ll be no-one there, no-one to tell anything to.”

But Aruba is very happy with the three past students of her school who have taken over the running of it. They are Padraig Treacy, Ursula Ramsell and Trish McCarthy.

The notion of retiring at 65 is “bunkum. If people have a talent and have their health, they should be allowed to continue working.

“When Sean retired in his sixties, it was soul- destroying for him. If he hadn’t his interest in research and writing his books, I don’t know what he would have done.

“He had very good health and wasn’t on any medication. Thank God I have good health. I never missed a class.”

Aruba believes that if you want to “make a success of anything, that you have to be disciplined”.

Clearly, she followed her own advice and is pleased that Sviesa is taking over the mantle at her dance school. The 52-year-old ballet dancer was recommended to Aruba by a colleague.

Sviesa runs her own school, Dancing Jewels, in Portarlington. She makes the journey to Cork every Saturday to teach Aruba’s former students.

“I’m from the Russian ballet school background,” says Sviesa. “Because Lithuania was in the old Soviet Union, we had professional ballet schools there where pupils studied for five or six days a week, for eight years in a row.

“I was a pupil in a special school for talented children. I learned classical ballet, starting at ten, for eight years, before starting to dance myself. Now I’m quite old (in ballet terms).”

When Lithuania became a member of the European Union in 2004, Sviesa followed her husband to Ireland. They were in Dublin for a few years and then moved to Portarlington where property prices are lower.

Sviesa says it is challenging to be running two dance schools.

“But there is excitement because the pupils from Aruba’s school are very good. They are a pleasure to work with. This is how I am compensated.

“I’m kind of taking over the Cork school but I would like Aruba’s input. I hope she doesn’t go away completely. She has huge experience which is invaluable.”

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